How to Tell If A Prophet Is True or False
Rembrant's depiction of the ambivalent prophet Balaam
From a Christian perspective, in a world that is still the stage on which the Prince of the Darkness is still waging a desperate fight against Christ and his followers, it is only natural to imagine that for every true prophet from God, Satan will put out at least one credible false prophet. This has never been a secret; as we have already mentioned, Christ has already warned about this danger:
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." Matt. 7:15.Another interesting passage dealing with the issue of false prophets can be found in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 22:19-23. Note the phrase a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets in verse 22. (As a side note, while God is not an initiator of evil, he is, in Hebrew thought, the final authority over everything. Therefore, in the above allegoric passage, God is depicted as sending the "lying spirit" to Ahab).
Bible Tests For False and True Prophets
Note: In an attempt to make this page easier to read, the details of each of the Bible tests for prophets listed below can be accessed by clicking on the test you are interested in reading more about.
1. False / True Prophet Test #1: Agreement With the Bible
This first and perhaps most important test basically says that everything a prophet says or communicates from God should be in harmony with what God has already revealed in the Bible. Since God does not change (see Mal. 3:6 - "For I am the LORD, I change not"), it would be contrary to any logic to believe his word does.
As another prophet put it, "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" - Is. 8:20.
All true prophets build on the foundation set by their predecessors. They may bring new light, they may offer new revelations about God and his plans that were not known or understood fully before, but they never contradict or destroy what God has already done before them. As we mentioned in the section on bible prophets, their mission was more often than not to correct and bring people back to reflect on the law and testimonies given by God to Moses and other prophets, rather than to make spectacular, never heard before predictions or revelations.
As I was trying to figure out the answer to my main questions, i.e. whether Joseph Smith was a true or false prophet, I found this first test to be most helpful. It was rather striking to me to hear my Mormon friends claim the Book of Mormon was another testament of Jesus Christ that was in complete harmony with the Bible, when in fact I was finding numerous points of divergence. I was then told that the Bible we Christians use today is no longer the original, unaltered Word of God. Many changes were made during ages past by evil people, and thus we can no longer rely on it as the ultimate authority. The implication (sometimes presented to me in explicit terms) was that the Book of Mormon is a more accurate rendition of God's word than the Bible is.
One of the basic tenets of LDS doctrine is that a major falling away took place in the early Christian community, resulting in the priesthood being taken away from the earth until it was restored through Joseph Smith. He also claimed to have been entrusted by God with restoring the Scriptures after they have been altered in the manner described above.
I have two problems with that explanation, though. First, it essentially transforms God into a feeble deity that is unable to take care of or protect his own written word. Second, it contradicts history. Let me explain why.
The apostle Paul in 2 Tim. 3:16, 17 states that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work". At the time Paul wrote this, the Scripture he was referring to was the Old Testament. Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered between 1947 and 1956, we know today that the Old Testament at the time of Paul was essentially the same with the one found in Christian Bibles today.
Before my LDS friends reading this quit reading, I want to add something. I do believe there was an apostasy in the post-early church era. I think history provides an abundance of examples of how various Christian churches and groups, small and large, allowed human traditions and unholy practices and priorities to infiltrate and degenerate their understanding of the Gospel truths. But this is entirely different than claiming the very Word of God was degraded and important parts of it were modfied or destroyed and lost through the course of time.
2. False / True Prophet Test #2: Fulfilled Prophecy
"You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." Deut 18:21,22. See also Jer. 28:9.
This second test of a true prophet states that what such a prophet predicts must come to fulfillment at the time and in the manner predicted.
While predictions are not the mainstay of Bible prophets' message, they serve an important purpose in providing credibility to the prophet's main message when the prediction comes to fulfillment. As God is perfect and knows the future, a true prophet cannot make erroneous predictions. Even one such false prophecy about future events will disqualify him or her as a prophet. An important side note here: there are so-called conditional prophecies in the Bible, the fulfillment of which was dependent on whether the conditions were met. The classic example is the prophecy of Jonah.
Jeremiah chapter 28 provides an interesting illustration of a true and false prophet and their messages. Hananiah, the false prophet, claims he has received a message from the Lord announcing the Babylonian captivity will come to an end within two years. This was contrary to what God had revealed before through Jeremiah, when he said Judah will serve the king of Babylon 70 years (see Jeremiah 25:9-12). In response, the true prophet Jeremiah, inspired by God, utters a shorter term prediction stating that Hananiah was going to die that same year to prove his message was wrong. When this prediction came to pass (see verse 17), it was hard to continue to be confused about who was the true prophet.
So my next question was: did Joseph Smith make any predictions as a prophet? If so, did they come to fulfillment?
One famous prophecy of Joseph Smith was the so called Prophecy of the Civil War. On Dec. 25, 1832, he claimed he received this revelation (see Doctrine and Covenants section 87:
2 And the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place.
3 For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States, and the Southern States will call on other nations, even the nation of Great Britain, as it is called, and they shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations; and then war shall be poured out upon all nations.
4 And it shall come to pass, after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters, who shall be marshaled and disciplined for war. 5 And it shall come to pass also that the remnants who are left of the land will marshal themselves, and shall become exceedingly angry, and shall vex the Gentiles with a sore vexation.
6 And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;
7 That the cry of the Saints, and of the blood of the Saints, shall cease to come up into the ears of the Lord of Saboath, from the earth, to be avenged of their enemies.
8 Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come; for behold it cometh quickly, saith the Lord. Amen.
Now, unless you have already been exposed to the official LDS interpretation, it is quite obvious this prophecy makes a few clear predictions:
- There will soon be a civil war between the Northern and Southern states of the United States.
- While at war, the states will enlist the help of other nations, including the Great Britain.
- The conflict will escalate from a local civil war to a war involving many nations.
- The war will involve slave uprisings and increasingly worse natural catastrophes as an expression of God's wrath that would result in the destruction of all nations.
My Mormon friends are quick to state this prophecy accurately predicted a civil war. And it did. So did others at the time. But they tend to minimize or explain away using what I call the Mormon Argument method the rest of the prophecy. In reality, though, we all know the US Civil War ended without other nations getting involved to an extent that made the war escalate into an end-of-the-world conflict. Furthermore, the nations of the earth are still here, long after the Civil War ended.
Joseph Smith's Civil War prophecy was not accurate and the more important aspects of it remained unfulfilled. As there were no conditions attached to it's fulfillment, this casts a big doubt on his claims of being a true prophet from God.
There are numerous other prophecies of Joseph Smith that didn't come to pass as predicted. Another famous one is related to the building of a temple in the state of Missouri, before the generation living at the time the prophecy was made will die. To this day, that temple has not been built, and no one of those alive at the time is among the living...
For a list of unfulfilled prophecies of Joseph Smith, please visit the following links:
3. False / True Prophet Test #3: By Their Fruits...
Jesus himself explained how this test is to be used to distinguish false prophets from true ones:
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit... Therefore by their fruits you will know them" - Matt. 7:15-20.
I personally find it interesting that Jesus chose, from all the other possibilities, this test as a method to tell false prophets apart. And I think there is an important reason he did that for. While the message of the prophet and/or his prophecies are often difficult to judge or can be interpreted in more than one way, while their harmony with the Scriptures can be argued back and forth, the "fruits" of the prophet's character and their acts are hard to miss. Either they are worthy of a prophet of God, or they are not.
This is not to say that prophets are perfect, faultless human beings. Moses got angry, Elijah stressed out, even John the Baptist, the one who Jesus called the greatest prophet of all, got discouraged, yet they are still recognized as prophets.
What Jesus is referring to here is the prophet's overall life and actions.
This is the test that Joseph Smith failed the most. Apart from his claims to being a prophet from God, his life is filled with transgressions against God's laws that are in some cases downright appalling. He essentially broke all ten commandments more than once.
Think about it: if you were to hear about somebody who claimed God was human, who changed the Word of God, who had people worship him, who pretended to restore the temple services yet forgot the true day of worship, who lied, committed adultery, coveted other people's wifes, etc., wouldn't you think such a person's character "fruits" disqualifies them from being a prophet? And yet this is exactly what Joseph Smith did.
4. False / True Prophet Test #4: Confessing Jesus Was Truly God And Truly Man
This last false prophet test was best spelled out by the apostle John:
"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world." - 1 John 4:1-3.